Comfortable at the top?

I’ve noticed over the last week several comments about Celtic winning the league comfortably. To be honest, I was somewhat baffled by this general view.

We all know how the Scottish game is viewed by outsiders. I’ll put those football ‘experts’ to one side for now and talk to those who actually watch Scottish football.

This season has been anything but a foregone conclusion. Credit must go to the teams who have been a thorn in the side of Celtic.

Aberdeen have put in another fine season and although the gap has widened since the turn of the year, are still a mathematical threat to Celtic’s title chances. However likely or unlikely that threat is, this season is not finished.

Despite failing to take any points off Celtic on any of their three meetings this season, Aberdeen have mounted a challenge. Had Derek McInnes overcome Ronny Deila in any of the three previous fixtures, that gap would be much smaller.

In behind the Don’s are Inverness Caledonian Thistle. John Hughes has had a great season and despite ousting Celtic from the Scottish Cup in controversial circumstances, it has been a decent innings for the Highlanders.

So much so, they overtook Jackie McNamara’s Dundee United. With some of the best talent produced in recent years, there is no doubt they were weakened by Celtic when the double swoop for Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong happened.

That is football though and there is only one club in Scotland who can afford to buy the best players from other Scottish clubs. If Celtic don’t buy these guys then they leave the country and quite possibly journey into obscurity.

How many players have gone south and disappeared into the lower leagues just for a better pay day? I’d much rather they were improving the game in Scotland but then I suppose that makes me a hypocrite because I left Scotland for the south for a change in life as well!

Having said that, Dundee United, ike most Scottish clubs need that money. They don’t have the fan base or infrastructure that Celtic do and as Ronny Deila said yesterday, this money is beneficial to Scottish clubs because it won’t come from any other avenue in the game right now.

Producing young talent is the best hope for Scotland’s clubs. Retaining it is the hardest part, though I digress!

To suggest that Celtic have or will win the league comfortably is doing a disservice to the clubs who have all taken points of Celtic this season. Hamilton Acccies put in a good start to the season, sitting at the summit for a number of weeks if memory serves correctly.

They are one of only six clubs in the Scottish Premiership that have taken points off Celtic this season. Dundee, Dundee United, Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Motherwell and St Johnstone make up the rest that pack.

Can you imagine if Aberdeen had managed to do the same? It might be a lot closer by now and to be fair they are already 6 points better off now than they were at the end of last season.

And that is the difference when you are aiming for glory. More often than not, you must be able to beat your biggest opponent to get in front of them.

That formula doesn’t always apply of course, particularly if you only play each other twice a season. In Scotland, losing all four matches against one opponent is technically a 12 point gap.

For that reason alone, I have always argued that playing each other twice in a larger league would raise competition in Scotland and improve the game as a whole. Unfortunately, the stewards of our game pander to a different audience as well as their own needs and in doing so drive our game into the ground.

Having said that, I am pleased with the challenge put in by some of the club’s this season in Scotland. There is still a need for investment though if anyone wishes to tackle Celtic season on season.

I’m hoping that with Hearts back in the top flight next season, they’ll make as good an effort in the Premiership as they did in the Championship.  Sure, it was a walk in the park for them, but they did so after learning a serious financial lesson and going about rectifying that with a positive approach.

So with four games left, 12 points up for grabs and an 8 point gap have Celtic ‘won’ this league as comfortably as the media have suggested? I don’t think so.

Celtic won last seasons league by a wapping 29 points to second placed Motherwell. Aberdeen came in third, 31 points behind Celtic – what a contrast for each of those clubs this season.

To win the league comfortably you have to be out in front with the kind of form that demonstrates you are in no danger of losing the title. Well I’m sorry but that was last season and I don’t think I’ve carried anywhere near a similar feeling in this campaign.

For starters Ronny Deila has battled hard to get his players up to the standards he believes in and by doing so lost some of our more fickle supporters. It took a while for Celtic to get to the top of the league due to some inconsistency and players fulfilling a different potential not to mention other teams starting the season well.

Eventually Celtic turned a corner in terms of team play and results, but there have been blips and poor performances since then. Right now, some players are beginning to look tired as well.

There is no guarantee Celtic won’t slip up in any of these last four matches and put their fourth-title-in-a-row chances in jeopardy. The question is, will Derek McInnes’s Aberdeen players stumble or will they aim to close that gap further?

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

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And now the split

Very rarely has the SPL/SPFL league split at the tail end of the season had much significance. In fact I think it may only have made an impact on one or two occasions.

This season, the five remaining fixtures will provide a tough test for the the two title challengers. Before the demise of Celtic’s Glasgow rivals, there were always two clubs battling it out.

Sometimes, one was having a rather bad season, sometimes both teams would take it down to the wire. Then there would be those occasions when the league was decided before the split.

The concoction of such a format was to enhance the level of opposition. I suppose you could say there might even have been a desire to make things more entertaining as well but I think I am offering too much credit to the grandmasters of Scottish football.

Still, this seasons Premiership title has not been decided. As last nights 2-1 away to Dundee demonstrated, Celtic will not be thumping their way to another Premiership trophy without experiencing some challenges.

My question is, are the players beginning to feel the pressure or perhaps even the exhaustion of a hard season? Despite bad refereeing on Sunday against Caley Thistle, not all of Celtic’s players were at the races that day.

The same can be said of last nights performance as well. Though I have to say that Efe Ambrose put in a decent performance throughout the match.

I’m not the first to offer praise for the Nigerian defender. He has let us down on countless occasions but he deserves some credit for last night (I think!).

Dundee made things a little nervy for Celtic when they pulled back a goal. It was another sloppy one for Celtic as far as concentration in defence goes but it wasn’t a disaster.

Celtic avoided that and to be fair could probably have had more goals in this game. They played the entire match on the front foot, but the players are looking a little tired to me.

The motivation for the squad though is five tough games and the prospect of the league title. Two matches at home and three matches away.

With seven points between Celtic and Aberdeen, the Don’s have never been in as good a position at this stage of a season since the 90’s. They’ve got there on merit and they remain a threat to Ronny Deila’s hopes of winning the title in his first season as manager.

The Hoops will need to pick up points on the road if they are to have any chance of winning this title without any assistance. Tannadice is the first port of call this Sunday and that will be a tough one.

Jackie McNamara may have slid on the title challenge but United are more than capable of unsettling Celtic. The Bhoys will need to be on their toes.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

Time for change

Before a ball was kicked on Sunday afternoon at Hampden, I felt it was going to be a challenging tie for Celtic. What I didn’t bargain for was the abysmal performance demonstrated by the match officials.

Without further ado though, I’d like to give credit to Inverness Caledonian Thistle and their manager, John Hughes. They’ve turned in a fine season under his stewardship and have always been a competitive team for Celtic.

So any attempt made by Celtic or their fans to question the refereeing of Sunday’s Scottish Cup Final is in no way a move to discredit their opponents or even make excuses for the defeat. As many fellow Celtic bloggers like Paul Brennan and James Forrest have already written in the last couple of days, the standard of refereeing in this match is a major concern.

Celtic already have made their position known and are seeking clarity on this disastrous piece of officiating from the SFA. There is no denying that one decision has been a costly one for Celtic Football Club.

Anyone who accepts this an honest mistake, given that two officials had a crystal clear view of the incident, are seriously deluded. There is no paranoia here, but it does make you wonder about what motivates some of Scotland’s officials.

I’m pleased that Celtic have taken action, even though it has already made them vastly unpopular. If Celtic don’t challenge the establishment then who will?

The Scottish game has yet to benefit from any kind of advancement in standards despite umpteen opportunities to do so. Since the last episode when Scottish football was analysed, nothing has changed.

Unfortunately, this is a recurring theme in the game north of the border. So is it any wonder our game is so dire?

A bit of rebranding here and a bit of rebranding there is the best the SFA can ever come up with. They cannot see beyond their own free lunches because they are happy with how things are.

What Scottish football needs is a revolution. Its been crying out for one for decades now.

Since the 70’s and 80’s football has progressed across the globe whilst Scotland has limped on. Why are standards so poor in Scottish football?

Because they have been allowed to sink that low.

Where do we go from here and what have we learned? Only that the SFA and league bodies cannot think outside of the box.

I hope Celtic take this all the way, I really do. Fairness and transparency is important for the future of the game and not just for the club I support.

Mistakes may happen, but this is an act of sheer negligence. If heads don’t roll then the SFA will have a shit storm to deal with and not just from Celtic.

My personal opinion regarding the SFA’s placing a charge against Josh Meekings retrospectively is too little too late. If he does indeed miss the final it does not answer the question as to why such a clear handball was missed by at least two officials.

All the SFA are doing here is deflecting the incompetence of their own officials. Inverness are said to be challenging the charge against Meekings and I don’t blame them.

Perhaps coming at the SFA from both sides is the only way Scottish clubs might get some answers from their governing body. We’ve endured their old boys network for too long.

Time for change.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

Caution with Caley

Today, Celtic take on Inverness Caledonian Thistle at Hampden Park. The Scottish Cup Semi-Final is yet another significant match that stands between Ronny Deila and the treble dream.

Last weekend saw his side face a tough Inverness side in the Premiership away from home, earning only a draw in the end. Despite coming from behind during the week to eventally scalp Kilmarnock 4-1, last weeks 1-1 draw will serve as a reminder that this will be not be an easy match for Celtic.

Caley Thistle have been a bogey team for the Hoops stemming back several years now. Nobody needs reminding of Scottish Cup results in 2000 and 2003 and the accompanying tabloid headline from that first defeat suffered at Celtic Park.

The highlanders have also enjoyed some notable battles with Celtic over the years, raising their game when called for. And this season, they’ve given a very good account of themselves under former Hoops defender, John Hughes.

So going into today’s match, Celtic must proceed with caution. Thistle are more than capable of an upset and can demonstrate the kind of tough tackling and stubborness to frustrate most teams, though mostly Celtic.

Last week, I didn’t think the draw was a bad result given that it can be tricky to get one up in Inverness. At Hampden today though Celtic must show who is boss because there is the personnel to do just that.

Before I come to the team, its worth remembering that almost a year ago Celtic recorded one of the biggest wins over Caley Thistle in the Premiership. That 6-0 win was preceded by another 6-0 thrashing of them in League Cup in September 2010, so Celtic have had their revenge over the years.

That is a reminder of what Celtic can inflict upon Thistle given the right blend on the park. And that is the burning question today: how will Deila line up for this crucial cup tie?

There is no doubt Leigh Griffiths is our best striker right now but Ronny still interchanges him with John Guidetti, a man not hitting the netti. Although Griffiths was totally frustrated at being hooked against Caley Thistle last week despite scoring in the third minute of the match, he did come off the bench midweek and bag a sweet hat-trick to win the game.

That should make him a starter for today alongside the usual suspects of Gordon, Matthews, Izaguirre, Denayer, van Dijk, Bitton, Brown and Johansen. With Gary Macakay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong both cup-tied, the remaining berths are likely to be filled by Commons and Forrest, unless Ronny fancies going with two up front and playing the moody Swede alongside the Teacake.

Personally, I can’t see him doing that from the outset though. With Scepovic rarely featuring these days, it is more likely that Deila will play one striker at a time, only playing both at a point in the game when dual power is called for, as seen on Wednesday night.

Let’s hope for a good contest today, whatever the result. The treble is our goal, but we’re not at the final yet.

The hard work must be put in today to make sure there will be a day in May at Hampden. Falkirk made their first final in six years by beating Hibs 1-0.

Its another rare Scottish Cup Final appearance by the Bairns. Let’s make it a date.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

Treble won’t come easy

So not the ideal set of results from the weekend then. Well, this season has been all about toil for Ronny Deila and there remains work to be done.

After hitting a brick wall in Inverness, Celtic had to settle for a 1-1 draw on Saturday lunchtime. The following day, Aberdeen pulled off a 2-1 away win at Kilmarnock.

The league form of the Dons has seen them win six, draw three and lose one. These results have allowed Celtic to widen the gap a little but yesterday they conceded two points.

It’s yet another sign that this title will not come to Celtic Park easily. And this has been anything but an easy season.

Inverness Caledonian Thistle have always been a thorn in the side of Celtic. They closed down the Hoops promptly on Saturday and allowed little time on the ball.

The surface didn’t lend well to the playing conditions but on this occasion I do not seek excuses. Celtic have more than enough to beat Thistle though in fairness to John Hughes, he’s doing a good job having experienced disappointment at Hartlepool and Hibernian in his managerial career.

On the disciplinary front, the card count totalled seven yellows, some not warranted. Craig Thomson had another poor game but in reality I was fully prepared for Celtic dropping points.

Inverness aren’t a threat in the positional sense, but they remain a team capable of taking points from Celtic. Aside from this Sunday’s Scottish Cup Semi Final against Caley Thistle, Celtic will face them again after the league split.

Right now, they remain a serious threat to Celtic’s treble chances. So it’s up to Ronny Deila to ensure is players are properly motivated for the remainder of the season.

Before they face Inverness on Sunday, there is the matter of Kilmarnock at home on Wednesday night. Celtic must use home advantage to ensure they increase their lead once more.

Celtic will do well to avoid dropping points in the remaining seven games particularly against the other five of the top six teams. For now, Celtic should be aiming to get all three points against ninth placed Killie because Aberdeen, Inverness, Dundee United, St Johnstone and Dundee (twice) will all have a say in Celtic’s treble chances.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

The wind of change

The significance of events between 2014-2015 at Celtic could turn out to be a pivotal time for the club. At the beginning of 2014, the league title looked destined for Celtic Park and fans were in for another anti-climatic finish for a second consecutive season.

There were many fixtures still to be played but Celtic would tie up the league the earliest it has been done since before World War II. Having exited Europe before Christmas 2013, Celtic had maintained an unbeaten run and record amount of shut-outs by Fraser Forster (setting a new record in the process), both of which would grind to a halt against Aberdeen, their closest rivals.

In the January transfer window, Celtic bought Leigh Griffiths, a player whose off-field antics did not resonate well among the fan base, mine in particular. The timing of the move seemed unnecessary given that the league looked to be coming Celtic’s way, but he was a relatively cheap acquisition for a proven goal scorer and Celtic had limited attacking options having already lost Gary Hooper the previous summer and still without an ample replacement.

He didn’t disappoint either and since then has proven himself valuable but I can’t change my disapproval of the time. In the same window, Stefan Johansen joined the ranks and displayed the kind of energy you expect from an attacking midfielder.

His ability was recognisable as soon as he set foot in the team but there would be more come from him in the season that followed. However, it was the announcement that Johan Mjallby would depart that summer that became the focal point of Celtic’s future.

This raised concern and speculation about Lennon’s situation. With his assistant coach eyeing the exit door some felt Lennon would follow Mjallby but I wasn’t totally convinced at the time.

Lennon later announced that he would also be leaving and I wondered how long this had been coming. He had endured the worst of times as a footballer and head coach whilst at Celtic.

Death threats, bomb threats and physical and verbal attacks by opposing fans surrounded the Northern Irishman because of his nationality, religion and club of choice. These acts remain a cancer in Scotland and also its greatest shame in the modern day.

It is therefore quite astounding that Lennon left having won the biggest of battle of all – over his oppressors. He overcame all of it but I am sure the pain inflicted upon him and his family will remain forever.

As it was Lennon departed on a high having secured the league title for a third consecutive season. In the wake of his exit, Celtic are said to have courted many names, but I saw most of them as pure speculation.

I don’t doubt that initial contact was made with some potential candidates but to what extent is anyone’s guess. The man they settled on in the end was supposedly not first choice.

Realistically, a club won’t always get their first choice so that never bothered me in the slightest. In fact, if Celtic’s first choice was Roy Keane, as many have said (including himself), then I think the club dodged a bullet.

Celtic cast a net knowing that they had limited funds to offer in terms of salary, as well as for purchases in the transfer market. Yet it is no surprise that so many names are banded about given the culture, history and fan base that Celtic Football Club possess.

I think most would agree that despite the lure of such a big name, Roy Keane could have been a disastrous choice. Outside of the “favourite”, Celtic were looking at young, up and coming coaches rather than older experienced ones.

Ex-Celts would top that list if course but the man they would go for was unknown to all. Ronny Deila was a young, up and coming coach for sure but nobody had heard of him.

Again, that didn’t concern me to be honest and I was intrigued and somewhat surprised by Celtic’s bold move. This was out of character for the club but the more I read about what Deila had done since he moved into coaching, the more interested I became in who he was and he could do.

As it turned out, it would be no easy ride as some Celtic managers have found out but I remained a supporter of Ronny and his plans. He came from left field and went about getting his plan up and running but he faced many challenges.

Despite losing one of the club’s best players in Fraser Forster, the club had acquired Craig Gordon as a replacement but having been out of the game for so long could he fill the shoes of his predecessor? Deila would seek further additions to aid his quest but he would largely be assessing the current squad including Stefan Johansen who had worked under him at Strømsgodset.

Now you can make your own deduction from this story but it was speculated that Deila had initially been earmarked as a coach to come in and work with Lennon. Whether there is any truth in that or not is immaterial because the one thing we can safely assume is that Celtic had done their homework on Deila.

With the first season not even over you just don’t know how far this relationship can go but so far he has weathered the storm and come out fighting. There is never any guarantee of success when you appoint a new head coach so there is always risk.

Celtic didn’t opt for this Norwegian coach as a stab in the dark, but because his methods were fresh and new. And having watched Deila endure a slow start with high expectations, disgruntled fans and a less than supportive media you would have to say the club have stuck by their man.

He has won over most of his opponents, if not all of them. Wth the possibility of a treble in one of the most competitive Scottish domestic seasons in recent years, it will put to bed all of those doubters should that dream come to fruition.

The expectations placed upon Deila have been huge but it is no different to any other manager before him. Europe was a steep learning curve and in reality, it turned out to be a fairly positive experience for himself and the players.

Despite missing out on the Champions League, a tournament Celtic were sure to have been slaughtered in, the Europa League was an opportunity for these players to bed in under a new regime on continental soil. Reaching the last 32 was a boost for Deila and the fans and it even served up an old Italian foe.

The tie with Inter Milan gave everyone a taste of what we could expect should Celtic reach the group stage of the Champions League next season. And that has to be a target for Deila and the club because a domestic treble this season would provide the kind of momentum required to lead the team into the early European qualification round in the summer.

That said this season isn’t over as it was by this time last year, despite Aberdeen losing their own momentum in recent weeks. A gap has opened up in the Scottish Premiership but Celtic are not at a safe distance just yet.

The last eight games for Celtic will be a test of their mental and physical strength at this stage of the season, continuing today at Inverness. The squad is extremely strong right now a competition for places remains tight.

Its a healthy situation for Celtic currently and when you cast your mind back to September and October, it serves as a reminder that success doesn’t come overnight. The efforts Ronny has put in this season can only blossom in the next.

He will want to ensure he is well equipped for a Champions League quest and there is no doubt he wants it as much as the board do for financial reasons and the fans do for entertainment value. Ronny himself knows the level each player must perform at to compete with the best in Europe and the world.

This is what he has spent all season trying to drill into the players he inherited and drafted in. The players have responded to him and will be ready to take the lessons from this season into the next one.

Keeping the squad together will be the priority but a few are certain to leave which is only natural. Four of the current crop at the club are on loan whilst seven of Celtic’s are also out on loan to other clubs so there will be some movement on that front for certain.

Deila would love to keep Jason Denayer and John Guidetti, both on loan from Manchester City, but they remain uncommitted. Denayer has put in a solid season and I’m sure another season long loan would be beneficial for all parties, but Denayer has not hidden his desire to return to City.

Guidetti on the other hand made a blistering start to his loan spell only to lose his way on the park amid speculation about a permanent move. Celtic brokered a deal with City but the Swede wasn’t on board and instead made umpteen references in the media about playing for other clubs in Europe.

This led to fans turning against him and gladly seeing him out of the team. He also spat the dummy out recently during the League Cup Final when after James Forrest won a penalty, he refused to hand Guidetti the ball.

At this level of football you don’t expect to see that kind of petulance but Guidetti capped it off by storming up the tunnel at full time only to be retrieved by Mikael Lustig. That memory is embedded in my mind and despite any desire Ronny still has of obtaining Guidetti’s signature, the Swede would have a lot of back pedalling to win over the fans once more.

The other two loanees, Mubarak Wakaso and Aleksandar Tonev are certain to return their parent clubs. Neither have held down a place this season.

Aside from Wakaso’s wonder goal against Red Bull Salzburg in the Europa League, his appearances have been limited. Tonev has made even fewer appearances and became an outsider after being accused and banned for alleged racial abuse of a fellow professional despite any hard evidence.

That seven match ban pretty much put an end to his playing chances as other players were beginning to find form. Celtic stuck by the player but he effectively lost his battle in the first team.

Celtic still have to decide on the futures of their own players out on loan as well. Amido Baldé was signed as a young prospect in 2013 but has rarely been given a chance so Celtic may cut there losses with him given that his loan spells with Waasland-Beveren and Hapoel Tel Aviv have not been prosperous.

Teemo Pukki and Hólmbert Friðjónsson are currently both playing at Brøndby IF with the former doing a decent job and likely to get a permanent move. Friðjónsson may also get a deal if Celtic end their interest in him though he is still on the fringes of success.

The four remaining players out on loan are could also move on with the exception of Liam Henderson. The young midfielder has put in some notable performances this season and has been loaned out for the rest of the season for experience only I would assume.

He looks as though he can do a job for Celtic but with competition for places high, he needs games to develop. Rosenberg should give him a decent level of experience to help him compete further next season.

The only other matter are the futures of Celtic’s contracted players. Commons finally sorted out his future and Van Dijk is now displaying signs of staying for a other season at the very least.

Another player back in the fold is young Tom Rogić. He went out on loan in January 2014 to Australia hoping to imprive his international chances but injury has been a thorn in his side.

There remains a glimmer of hope for the Australian midfielder. I’m sure we’d all love to see what he has to offer if he can shrug off injuries.

I read somewhere recently (possibly just a rumour) that the club may try and move Anthony Stokes on. I’m not totally against the idea to be honest but I think I’d rather see the back of guys like Derk Boerrigter first.

“Sicknote'” has been a disastrous signing for Celtic. Whilst the club have been known for unearthing gems, he certainly hasn’t been one of them.

The very fact he came with an injury tag was a risk the club must be held accountable for. There have been too many risks and I’d hate to think that the rumoured fees for these guys were all met in full given what they have failed to do for the club.

Baldé, Pukki and Boerrigter all signed four year deals and each has failed to cut it. One man on the brink of going down the same road is Stefan Šćepović.

He too signed a four year deal with Celtic, after an on/off transfer that cast a minor shadow over the deal. He hasn’t held down a regular spot in the team or provided the fire power he demonstrated at Sporting de Gijón but there remains the possibility he may still make it as a Celtic player.

Celtic have decisions to make on all of these players and cut back on waste. When I think about the players in years gone by that Celtic failed to stump up the cash for i.e. James McFadden and Steven Fletcher, it irks me that they have spent more on players at a higher risk of failure.

Time to move on the morons and motivate the worthy. Only the best will make it in Ronny’s squad.

Eight games left and a treble is in our sights. Inverness here we come.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie